South Africa


Harassment, Inc: The day theatre icon Mbongeni Ngema hit on a young reporter and could not understand what he had done wrong

Writer, film and theatre director Mbongeni Ngema, photographed in Johannesburg, South Africa, on 27 January 2010:. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Veli Nhlapo)

South Africa, and the world, it appears, is awash with priapic predators who suffer from self-delusions of grandeur and who are driven by an apparent inability to self-regulate, including in the company of a woman young enough to be your granddaughter.

So, here they are, a hearty intake of young writers at Daily Maverick. Observing these women – for they are all young women at our Cape Town office – blossom, angst and begin to forge their own paths while, we, the jaded elders, keep a watchful distance – is a thrilling challenge.

At a Monday morning conference, we talk about the news diary. One of the young writers is keen to see the revival of the theatre classic, Woza Albert, starring two of the stage’s iconic veterans, Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa. It is on at the invitation of the Baxter Theatre. And in this instance, the use of “veteran” and “iconic” in the same sentence is not overblown.

History is always somehow a guest at our editorial meetings. History and the present – that great, mutually-beneficial partnership between the old(er) and the young(er), the experienced and the passionate beginners.

For the writers to have an opportunity to see, live, this enduring piece of 1980s “struggle theatre”, and not only that, with the ORIGINAL cast, is an opportunity to be leapt at. Even better, some of the Daily Maverick elders saw the original production, way back in the eighties, with the same cast when the work was yet to be named a classic and when it had it’s greatest impact as a piece of political theatre.

Towards the end of the meeting, however, the elders voice a caution. Mbongeni Ngema has previously been accused of assaulting a female cast member. This was in New York during a production of Sarafina in the 1980s. It made it to the Village Voice, and was reported here.

The week Woza Albert opens, a Daily Maverick senior is kindly invited by the Baxter Theatre management to attend. She politely declines and instead discreetly forwards a recent great piece of journalism published in the online, long-form writing platform, New Frame.

The  story, by Amanda Khoza with photography by Ihsaan Haffejee, is about a community in Melmoth in Kwa-Zulu-Natal who have accused the theatre veteran of evicting families from a piece of land for which Ngema has managed to secure a lease.

It doesn’t look good. There’s bullying, and there’s an allegation Ngema was given the land by the Department of Land Affairs. When the community wants to consult, Ngema just refuses and refers them to the higher ups.

The community had also previously lodged a claim on the land and have questioned how Ngema could have obtained the lease. New Frame has a smaller readership than it deserves, so we cannot blame anyone for not knowing what Ngema is up to off-stage and out of the spotlight.

The young reporter is not deterred from wishing to review the celebrated show and interviewing Ngema. She takes two colleagues with her. They are going to experience a piece of theatre history that was marking its 40thanniversary. One writer, in particular, knows Ngema’s work, grew up surrounded by it including the memorable song Stimela sase Zola, and, of course Sarafina, the film and the theatre production.

The Monday editorial meeting ends.

Three writers attend the performance. But in the end, the review is not published.

Because none of us could have foreseen the extraordinary twist of events that played out once the theatre lights had gone black and Ngema and his co-star and author Mtwa were led to a public space at the Baxter to be interviewed by enthusiastic young audience members, who just happen also to be writers, journalists in the fashioning.

We are withholding the identity of the Daily Maverick writer, but it is known to Ngema. We have also put all of these events to Ngema offering him a right of reply and comment. We will reveal his response further on. To make it clear, co-star Percy Mtwa had no role to play in the events as they unfolded.

Here, in the new Daily Maverick writer’s words, is what happened:

On Wednesday 20 February, XX, XX and I received complimentary tickets to watch and review Woza Albert at the Baxter Theatre at 7.30 pm.

Fahiem Stellenboom, Baxter’s Marketing Manager, organised for the three of us to interview Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa. The interview proceeded relatively well, although Mbongeni had enquired about my full name and surname as well as the location of my hometown during the interaction.

Mbongeni was the only person consuming alcohol, during and after the interview.

We concluded the interview at around 10.30 pm. Mbongeni then requested my number. I thought it was for professional purposes, so I wrote it down and handed it over. He did the same with his.

As we were leaving the Baxter, both men shook our hands to say goodbye. I was the last person he said goodbye to. I extended my hand, he took it and pulled me towards him. He then whispered in Zulu, “I’ll call you later”. They then both walked away.

XX, XX and I waited for transport for a short while after, then headed home. Before I had even arrived at my gate he had tried to call me. I then blocked his number and he tried to call three times between 1am and 2am. He also sent a Whatsapp, which I deleted. I blocked his number on Whatsapp. The last attempted call he made was on Thursday 21 Feb at 3.36pm.

The whole experience was disgusting and disrespectful. I’d like for him to know that.”

Daily Maverick WhatsApped the above to Ngema on Friday, 1 March. The WhatsApp was blue-ticked later that same day. By Sunday, 3 March, having received no response, we again WhatsApped Ngema.

We reminded Ngema that it was his right to reply to the claims as set out in the Friday WhatsApp and informed him that should he not respond we would note this in our story.

At 12.47 on Sunday Ngema responded: “I don’t know what to respond to cause I didn’t insult anyone.”

We replied “what is your response to telling her you would call her and in fact, you did so several times until she blocked you? What was your intention in calling her?”

We are still awaiting further engagement.

Lara Foot, Baxter Director and CEO, responding to news of the allegations told Daily Maverick that the theatre had a “duty of care” and that “we take this very seriously”.

We, therefore, support any process which holds alleged perpetrators accountable; and we support this young journalist in any further steps that she would like to take. There cannot be people who are allowed to act with impunity. Sexual harassment is unacceptable.”

That Ngema seems unable to – at all – comprehend what he has been accused of is deeply problematic and perfectly emblematic of the corrosive effects of toxic patriarchy on the human brain. The collateral damage then spreads outwards, threatening any woman in range.

South Africa, and the world, it appears, is awash with priapic predators who suffer from self-delusions of grandeur and who are driven by an apparent inability to self-regulate, including in the company of a woman young enough to be your granddaughter.

What happened on that Wednesday night was an old, decaying world meeting up against and crashing into a brave new one struggling to breathe and be born mid #MeToo stream.

An old order of sorts, of stasis, of ossified thoughts, of entitlements, of cocksure assertions and the invasion of women’s private space without invitation encountering a new world in the making.

The unsettled feelings and the navigation of these by Ngema’s chosen target came as a sobering shock as a sense of betrayal and disappointment set in.

What to do when someone who forms a part of the struggle for a free, just and equitable South Africa, a man, like Ngema, who benefits from embodying this struggle internationally in song, on stage and on the screen, shatters the illusion, reveals his feet of clay and his heart of old stone?

What to do now with Ngema’s art, his creative output? Can we love the art and hate the artist?

Woza Albert as a play, is not Ngema’s alone. Percy Mtwa too is part of the DNA of the work which is inexorably woven into the fabric of South African history.

It is a play that should be allowed to live and breath and be re-explored by younger generations, but one of its co-authors has crapped on his own legacy in full view of another – the literary legacy of the play that technically belongs to history and generations to come.

Perhaps it is time for two women to play the parts in Woza Albert, to flip the script. What if Jesus returns and she is a woman? What would Ngema and the old patriarchs like him do then? Invite her out for a drink perhaps?

Woza Albert, starring Mbongeni Ngema, is about to tour the country. You decide. DM








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